County Commission also directs staff to undertake further testing to determine whether a new facility can be built on the site of the closed Venice Public Library
While some Sarasota County staff members negotiate with the City of Venice on leasing the city’s Hamilton Building as a temporary library space, others will be working to obtain a final assessment of whether a new library can be built on the site of the facility that closed Jan. 30 because of concerns about mold.
Those affirmations — including a unanimous County Commission vote on the lease negotiations — followed remarks from 28 speakers and almost an hour of additional discussion on Feb. 9 about the future of library services for Venice residents.
Additionally, commissioners and County Administrator Tom Harmer apologized to the public for not communicating more clearly about the health concerns that led the board to vote on Jan. 12 to close the Venice Public Library.
Almost all of the speakers who addressed the commission at the outset of the Feb. 9 regular meeting — which was held in Venice — pleaded for a swift resolution of the problems so library services could resume on a broader basis than the temporary measures county staff has implemented at the Venice Community Center.
At one point, Chair Al Maio halted the public comments long enough for Harmer to report that the Venice City Council — in its regular session that same day — had voted unanimously to allow lease negotiations for the county’s use of the Hamilton Building to proceed.
On a motion by Commissioner Charles Hines, seconded by Commissioner Christine Robinson, the county board directed Harmer and staff to pursue the discussions with the City of Venice. “Is the Hamilton Building perfect? No,” Hines pointed out, noting parking limitations and earlier staff comments about the need for several walls to be removed if the facility were to serve as a temporary library location.
However, Hines continued, the majority of Venice residents who have contacted the County Commission have implored it to keep a facility on the island of Venice. Moreover, Hines noted, if the Hamilton Building were used, Venice Elementary School students would be able to walk there safely on the Legacy Trail.
Finally, Hines pointed out that the board had dealt in the past with overly long lease negotiations. “We can’t have that in this scenario.” He asked staff — including County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh — to expedite the process. “We can’t nitpick this to death.”
“This is really, really, really important,” Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo concurred.
Robinson suggested that if a special board meeting proves necessary to speed up the signing of a lease, staff should not hesitate to schedule one.
After the vote, Robinson asked staff about the potential for building a new facility on the current site, which is owned by the city but leased on a long-term basis by the county.
Jeff Lowdermilk, director of facilities and fleet in the county’s Public Works Department, replied that the parcel “appears to be viable” for future construction. However, he continued, he would want to make sure all soil identified as containing “organics and muck” was removed and that clean fill was added. Deeper soil borings are warranted, he continued, to make certain no unforeseen problems would hinder the erection of a new library on the property. Additionally, Loudermilk said, “I think we probably need to do some more due diligence with the [stormwater] system in the area.”
In response to another question from Robinson, he added that if a multi-level facility were proposed for the site, he would want to undertake even further investigation to make sure that was feasible.
When Robinson asked Isaac Brownman, the county’s public works director, whether all that due diligence could be completed before the County Commission holds an already scheduled joint meeting with the Venice City Council in late March, Brownman replied, “We’re going to make every effort.”
She also suggested that the geotechnical engineering firm that would undertake the work for the county have representatives available at that joint session to answer any questions and potentially speed up the process of establishing a new permanent library.
When Robinson inquired as to whether staff would proceed to demolish the existing structure, Lowdermilk suggested the building might be needed to store materials that could not be moved to the temporary library location because of space limitations.
Maio did not want to take a chance that leaving them in the building could lead to more problems. “We’ve got the money,” he said. “Rent a facility and move the excess equipment and books, after they’ve been sterilized, somewhere else.”
Additionally on Feb. 9, Sarabeth Kalajian, the county’s director of libraries and natural resources, announced that she and her staff would begin holding community workshops in March as they begin planning for a new Venice library.
A fuller explanation
Multiple speakers who addressed the board on the morning of Feb. 9 argued that the library should have been left open until arrangements for a temporary facility were completed. A.J. Metzgar of Venice told the commissioners, “I’ve always been allergic to mold. … I go in the Venice Library and I don’t even sniffle.”
When Robinson asked if he was telling the board that no mold was in the library, Metzgar replied, “If there is, there’s a lot more outside.” Pointing to his nose, he added, “This equipment’s never failed me.”
At the commission’s direction, Harmer then read an excerpt from a Feb. 6 letter he had received from Charles H. Henry, the health officer for the Department of Health in Sarasota County. It said, “Please know that based on the available data, discussions with facilities staff and knowledge of complaints from mold sensitive individuals, I cannot recommend or support the reopening of the Venice Library until a complete remediation of the identified mold areas has been accomplished and additional air quality samples are taken to confirm clearance.”
In remarks during the meeting, Henry explained that if issues causing “persistent damp environments” are not resolved successfully, the results are elevated bacterial levels and higher levels of mold and other fungi. That situation, in turn, leads to greater difficulty in cleaning a facility, he pointed out. Exposure to such environments is especially problematic for babies, children, people with chronic diseases — especially those of a respiratory nature — and anyone with compromised immune systems, Henry added.
Several of the speakers also criticized the County Commission and staff for poor communications regarding the months-long process that led to the closing of Venice Public Library. Gene Dillahunty told the board, “Everyone in the community is saying, ‘This just doesn’t make sense.’” That had led to accusations that the board had a “hidden agenda,” he added.
Although county staff recently has made all sorts of documents available on a website devoted to the Venice Library situation, Jacqueline Mineo said, “It’s far too late. … I think you need a lot more openness, a lot more transparency.”
In his remarks to the board, Public Works Director Brownman explained that after staff began dealing with elevated mold levels in the library’s meeting room in December 2014, it hired consultants — including representatives of a geotechnical engineering firm — who determined that the heating and air conditioning system in the facility could not overcome the humidity, “which has continuously been 94 to 99 percent, which is unacceptable.”
Air quality testing showed elevated bacterial levels in the air, he added. Problems also were found with the downspouts, the drainage system and the roof, which has been repaired 17 times in the past five years because of leaks, he pointed out.
“It didn’t make sense to me, as your public works director, to recommend pouring more money into this library.”
If that type of detailed information had been provided publicly before the board’s Jan. 12 vote, Commissioner Hines said, that would have stopped any “conspiracy-type thoughts” among the public.
“We missed the mark on explaining the action,” County Administrator Harmer told the board. “I clearly take responsibility for that.” He apologized “for unfortunately putting [the commissioners] in the position they’ve been in with regard to this issue.”
Other concerns about service
Several speakers complained about having to use other county libraries that are not as accessible. One suggested the county provide a shuttle to the Jacaranda Public Library, located at 4143 Woodmere Park Blvd. in Venice.
When Commissioner Robinson also asked whether any consideration has been given to the idea of opening the Jacaranda Library on Sundays, Kalajian, the county’s director of libraries and historical resources, replied that she would evaluate that, along with potential shuttle service from Venice Island to that facility.
“We need to provide as much relief as we can for folks,” Robinson told Kalajian.
Chair Maio suggested that county staff also look into expanding Sarasota County Area Transit’s bus service for handicapped residents, to assist people who were patrons of Venice Public Library.
Kalajian pointed out that her department for years has provided a free service through which it mails books to people who have difficulty traveling to libraries. Sending the books back in the mail is also free, she stressed.
In regard to former Venice Library patrons using other facilities, Kalajian noted that staff members at the Jacaranda, Osprey and Gulf Gate libraries have observed increases in activity. Additionally, the library service area provided on a temporary basis at the Venice Community Center recorded between 140 and 260 users a day during the first week after the Venice Library closed on Jan. 30, she said.
The youngest speakers during the meeting were Venice Elementary students Gwendolyn Bensen, a fifth-grader; and Natasha Bensen, a first-grader. Gwendolyn told the board that a number of her school’s students were accustomed to walking to Venice Public Library after classes ended for the day. They could read or do homework, she said, until their parents picked them up.
In light of such comments, Hines also asked Kalajian about her discussions with representatives of the Sarasota County School District regarding an effort to keep the media centers open after school at both Venice High and Venice Elementary schools. He noted that that was a topic of discussion during the Jan. 15 Convocation of Governments, which the School Board hosted.
District personnel are unable to man those centers after normal school hours, Kalajian responded. However, members of her staff has been involved in afterschool care programs at Venice Elementary for many years, she continued. Therefore, it might be possible for them to keep that school’s media center open later each school day, she added.
“That conversation needs to go a little bit further,” Hines told Kalajian.